Scramble for the Ball: 2015 in Review
by Andrew Healy and Sterling Xie
Andrew: I started this season rooting for Peyton Manning to ride off into the sunset with the confetti coming down. Manning's 16 years of greatness seemed headed for a lifetime of unfair underappreciation, with one more Super Bowl win the only antidote. And so you'd think I'd be happy with getting exactly that outcome.
Well, not really. Most athletes get one narrative. Peyton has gotten two. He might have been The Choker, but he has also gotten to be The Admired Man. As unfair as the first label was, the second earned him the kind of near-100 percent approval rating that allows a few athletes in a generation to receive nothing but affection off the field. (If you think that part is his just rewards for being a good guy, maybe that's fair, but let's not jump to that conclusion. My list of the most recent athletes to hold The Admired Man title: Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Derek Jeter. A wide variety of personality types in there.) The media-packaged personas of The Admired Men tell us basically nothing about who these guys really are. But having that label means all of your actions get viewed through that favorable prism. Cam Newton undoubtedly would like to have The Admired Man narrative and the seemingly endless inflow of Madison Avenue dollars that comes with it.
I found myself thinking about all of this with Peyton during the game. I've always thought he was essentially tied for the best quarterback I've ever seen. I've never bought The Choker narrative. But I don't buy The Admired Man narrative, either. (Not saying it's untrue. I just have no idea.) And after a strange season in which Manning was not only less than his 1998-2014 self, but an active and substantial detriment to the Broncos' chances, I found myself thinking a win would not do much for the all-important football justice scale. Manning has been more than compensated for his poor playoff luck by his endless riches from Admired Man status. And does it really help those of us who want to argue for the next on-field Peyton Manning that it could help your legacy to have a season where a team wins at every stage despite your terrible play?
So I leave a pretty desultory Super Bowl thinking that this doesn't really get us closer to fairness. I want Manning's career to be appreciated appropriately, but somehow it's even worse if this season, and particularly this game, helps that happen. He didn't even need to play well for most of the game to make the upwards narrative adjustment feel acceptable to me. Just lift even a sliver of the weight. Do anything to help the Broncos win, even one real touchdown drive when they needed it. Instead Manning became the first quarterback to win a Super Bowl without a touchdown drive of more than ten yards. I kind of wish we had pulled 54-year old Dan Marino in to play on Sunday. He probably would have won, too, and he deserved a narrative upgrade even more than Manning.
OK, Sterling, pull me out of my post-Super Bowl hangover. Make me feel better by describing how insanely great the Denver defense was or how we'll get to see Cam with Kelvin Benjamin next season or how the NFL will evolve to no longer have Aqib Talib-style viciousness.
Sterling: The aftermath of this game should absolutely focus on Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, and the rest of the Broncos defense, which thoroughly dominated a fascinating matchup against the league's top-scoring offense (though merely a top-10 one by DVOA). But I think what you say is interesting; one on hand, the small anti-Peyton legion of NFL fans will dwell on the media-created Teflon suit his narrative has created for him. I laughed when I saw ESPN's headline in the immediate wake of the Denver win, which read, "Peyton Manning wins second Super Bowl title," rather than shining the spotlight on a historic cap to a historically great defense.
But this isn't anything new. The narrative, particularly when you're a quarterback, is basically set in stone once you reach Manning's age. Despite all the airtime and acclaim he may receive as "The Admired Man," this playoff run has corrected a lot of past wrongs with Manning's playoff career, as Scott laid out earlier this week. I understand it's a little screwy that Peyton's worst season might be the one that secures him the G.O.A.T. title belt (at least until some arbitrarily hand it back to Tom Brady following a Week 8 win over Houston next season). Read more optimistically, though, it might serve as overdue justice for, say, 2005, when he was far and away the best quarterback in football, yet got nothing but a heartbreaking loss to Pittsburgh in the divisional round to show for it.
Peyton is getting due praises for his career, and will continue to do so if/when he announces his retirement. For now, though, the defense deserves an incredible amount of credit for running over a Panthers offense that appeared well equipped to exploit Denver's few weaknesses. In particular, I thought Cam Newton's ability to muscle away from pass-rushers and challenge the Broncos' safeties deep would play a bigger role for Carolina. Obviously that didn't come close to happening. This didn't even remind me of the Panthers' Week 16 loss to Atlanta, where they moved the ball but didn't get many possessions and couldn't make enough plays once they got into plus territory. The Broncos just absolutely suffocated them and forced Cam into way too many situations where the pass-rushers could tee off. Get this: The Panthers ran 34 first-down plays in the Super Bowl, including those nullified by penalties. Six of those plays resulted in another first down. Of the other 28 first downs, Carolina reached second-and-5 or shorter just two times!
Andrew: That's a great stat and one terrible success rate on first down. Von Miller will haunt Panthers' fans dreams. His opponent adjustments for going up against Marcus Cannon and Mike Remmers would take his DVOA from 15,000% to something like 8,000%, but those might still be the best back-to-back games a defensive player has ever had in the championship game and Super Bowl. Five sacks, a bushel of other pressures, the single biggest play of the AFC Championship Game (the interception that set up Denver's second touchdown), and the two biggest plays of the Super Bowl (the sacks that led to both of Denver's touchdowns).
The front seven dominance was everywhere. For the Panthers, Kony Ealy became just the fifth player to get three sacks in a Super Bowl, and he corralled a poor throw from Manning to get an interception that kept the Panthers in the game. Thomas Davis courageously played through his broken arm. He missed at least one tackle he might have made if healthy, but still an incredible performance. His Jack Youngblood impersonation could have gotten more props than it did.
Chase Stuart wondered if this might have been the best defensive Super Bowl ever. I'm inclined to think Super Bowl XXXV edges it out. The opponent adjustments would be very similar. The 2000 Giants had an offensive DVOA of 8.9% (ranked 8th), very similar to the 2015 Panthers' 9.9% (also ranked 8th). The 2000 Ravens finished at minus-8.1% (22nd), similar to the 2015 Broncos' minus-8.8% (25th). Scott and Vince were all over the similarities between the two games in their preview, too.
So, was this the greatest defensive Super Bowl ever?
Sterling: In the DVOA era, probably. Before the game, FiveThirtyEight called this one of the best defensive matchups in Super Bowl history, along with Super Bowl IV (Minnesota vs. Kansas City) and Super Bowl XIV (Pittsburgh vs. L.A. Rams). The game certainly lived up to expectations from that perspective, and if Carolina's fumbles hadn't essentially handed Denver 14 points, this might have been the lowest scoring Super Bowl of the past 40 years, with the possible exception of The Game That Shall Not Be Named.
I'm interested in how this game gets remembered. There will always be the "Peyton's Last Rodeo" angle, especially if he retires, but will its luster be dimmed at all given how poorly he played in the Super Bowl (and for that matter, the whole season)? Do we remember the Broncos as a generational defense if they don't follow up with more great seasons, which seems like a distinct possibility given how much they outperformed their point differential in 2015? It might be tough for any other defense to stand out in the middle of this Seahawks DVOA dynasty (which obviously isn't only about defense, but the Legion of Boom is at least a co-star with Russell Wilson). Finally, for the love of all that is holy, please tell me Cam Newton isn't actually going to get branded for his poor performance and mildly pouty body language. Dude just won the MVP, is somehow already the greatest rushing quarterback of all time, and nearly spearheaded the third-ever 18-1 Super Bowl champion. You would think Newton has banked enough goodwill to avoid the wrath of the narrative, but the hot takes are already rolling in.
Andrew: I get the criticism of walking off. We've seen other players get up there and give the media the few minutes of platitudes that are required in that spot. But I really disagree with their interpretation that he should be quiet and humble in defeat because he's often so demonstrative in victory. While some guys are more subdued, cool, and calm, Newton's emotions run close to the surface. You see his emotions come out when celebrating and you saw them come out on the podium. He doesn't do a good job of hiding how he's feeling in any circumstances. Personally, I like that. I know I'm not getting PR-managed Cam, but something closer to genuine. A reporter goes on for two sentences without a question ("I know you're disappointed not just for yourself, but for your teammates. It's got to be real tough in that locker room.") and maybe Cam feels himself about to say something he might regret. So he walks off.
I have a unified theory of Cam's Super Bowl: he came in groggy from a fitful night of sleep. From the first snap, Cam looked less expansive than he did in the other two playoff games. His calls were more muted. His expression in the shotgun seemed less certain. He looked tired more than anything else. And that was from the very beginning, before Denver's pass rush took hold. Newton gave the ball to the running back on a couple read-options where the better call would have been to keep the ball. Maybe a better rested and fully energetic Cam would have gotten a big gain on that one where he almost pulled the ball back from Jonathan Stewart with just T.J. Ward to beat on the edge.
Even the fumble makes sense from this perspective. Why didn't Cam jump in when it certainly seemed like he should have? Maybe he just reacted slowly because he was exhausted. And then in the press conference, maybe he was too tired to put up a front.
On the field, I'm not even sure we need to make much of an excuse for Cam's performance. Jerricho Droppery made two enormous drops on throws that Cam dropped in the bucket 20 yards down the field. On the interception, he had one receiver with a glimmer of daylight and threw a perfect laser. It was thrown hard, but it had to be. A better receiver than Ted Ginn would make that catch nine times out of ten.
So for me, chalk up the criticism of Cam as pretty unfair, particularly the vociferousness of the reaction to the press conference. Just a huge overreaction. While we might remember the end of the 2015 season for Cam -- we always seem to remember the end, just ask 2013 Peyton -- I hope we don't forget everything that came before it, and particularly before three minutes with the media after the toughest loss of his life. More broadly, what are you taking away from the 2015 NFL season?
Sterling: In a year without any clearly great teams, it's fitting the Super Bowl champs went totally against the grain of 21st century football and won by being excellent at everything except the most important element, passing the ball. People have debated about the second-most important position after quarterback, but I've been leaning towards pass-rusher for some time. Whether it's in the interior or along the edge, having the antidote to a great passing attack is the only thing more important than a great passing attack itself.
I'll go rapid fire with some of the other things I'll remember from 2015: Terrible fantasy running backs; the steady rise of little receivers; the next wave of generational front seven talent taking over (Khalil Mack, Aaron Donald, et al.); rubbing my hands with glee when I saw someone on my fantasy team going up against the Saints; a spate of crazy playoff finishes over the first two rounds; dabbing (I think we've jumped the shark here); running off the plug (an underrated but equally goofy celebration which took hold); and, of course, being lucky enough to debut on this site.
Andrew: We're all certainly grateful for that. It's been a ton of fun getting to write this with you over the course of this season. We started with a bunch of $1 bets that I'm pretty sure I won all of. You will owe me a beer when you're old enough to drink.
My main takeaways from this season, superhero-style: Chip Kelly as The Poor Asset Evaluator; Mario Williams as The Disappearer; Peyton Manning as The Admired Man; Chuck Pagano as The Emotional Man; Cam Newton as Superman; Thomas Rawls as The Battering Ram; Jordy Nelson as The Surprisingly Indispensable; Bruce Arians as The Man I'll Never Bet Against Again; Odell Beckham as The Unhinged; Blair Walsh as The Purple Fan Killer; Vontaze Burfict as the Orange-and-Black Fan Killer; Andy Dalton as The What If?; Andy Reid as The Underappreciated Always Winner; and Von Miller as The Unstoppable Force.
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I also take away from this season the Ryan Shazier hit on Giovani Bernard, the Burfict hit on Antonio Brown, and the Talib mauling in the Super Bowl. One of the big reasons I love the NFL as much as I do is because I actually think the league has gotten much better on these issues in recent years. Many people who had no problem with safeties using their helmets as missiles in earlier years now find only criticism even when there has been some real progress. I have never found NFL football easier to watch than now, overall. All the room left to go -- and the unforgiveable way that the league handled head trauma before 2006, detailed best in League of Denial -- should not obscure the improvements to player safety.
So I take away both the Shazier/Burfict/Talib-ish violence that underscores how much remains to be done (and I think everything from weight limits to widening the field should be on the table) and the perhaps minority opinion that things are headed in a good direction, one that few would have guessed as recently as five years ago. We now have independent neurological assessments determining whether players get back into games. One day soon, a Super Bowl may turn on a player being held out by that independent assessment for his own safety. That will drive some fans crazy, just as some of the banning of some hits has in recent years. But I think the league will lose no popularity for that and it just may save its soul.
Sterling: The scarlet letter that headhunters get branded with is definitely an encouraging step. I think it's hard to dispute that NFL football is at least trying to move in the right direction in terms of head trauma awareness and equipment/technique safety, even if the NFL corporate entity could stand to be a little more transparent (like at least acknowledging that Concussion was an actual movie that aired in theaters this winter). And post-retirement health benefits for players need to increase. It will be decades before we see if diseases like CTE are really decreasing in retirees, but I'm hopeful football won't go the way of boxing in the latter half of the 21st century.
Anyways, it's almost curtains for Year 1 of our Scramble debut. We still have some commercial/prop bet recaps and announcements to get to, so don't head out just yet. Only 210 more days until the 2016 season kicks off.
An underwhelming slate of commercials. The majority inspired some version of the "I can't believe they just spent $3 million on that" reaction. The ones that stood out to us when we weren't getting snacks:
Andrew: I must be in post-Super Bowl hangover mode, because my main reaction to this was to worry about the baby crashing his/her head into the wall of her mother's uterus. I give it two-and-a-half placentas.
Sterling: This was the most explicitly cringeworthy Super Bowl ad in my opinion, though our most sneakily cringeworthy winner is still to come. I felt almost as bad for that poor mother as I did for Manu Ginobili last weekend, and this wasn't even real.
Prius: The Longest Chase
Sterling: I'm guessing this commercial cost Prius around $15 million, given that it was a 90-second bit that came right before the two-minute warning at the end of the first half, when you'd expect tons of eyeballs to be on the game. It was well worth it. I was sold when the cops moaned, "How hard is it to catch a Prius?" Having Jump Around play for most of the commercial didn't hurt either.
Andrew: When I saw the commercial, all I could think was "That's Frank Sobotka!" And it wasn't just the head of the dockworkers' union from Season 2 of The Wire in the passenger seat. My buddy pointed out it was Frank's son, Ziggy, back from the dead, driving. Watching it again now, cousin Nicky was in the back seat on the left. That makes three Sobotkas in the Prius commercial. So not just a fun commercial but kind of an inside joke for "Wire" fans. Four shipment containers for this one.
TurboTax: Never a Sellout
Andrew: To me, the best commercial of the game. First, I wouldn't be surprised if I used TurboTax because of it. Second, the whole "I would never sell out" commercial has been done, but they got a knight to do it. Third, they worked in a puppy named "TurboTax.com." Funny, funny stuff. Five Silence of the Lambs masks.
Sterling: I somehow completely missed this during the game. I noticed Anthony Hopkins, but got caught up in a conversation about what he has been in since Silence of the Lambs and didn't hear anything. Anyways, I hope the person interviewing Hannibal isn't that census taker he was talking about.
Hyundai: First Date
Sterling: A grouchier person might talk about how the date construct is overused in commercials, but Kevin Hart > 99 percent of human beings. Both Toyota (with the Prius) and Hyundai (which owns Kia) produced commercials far more interesting than their actual product.
Andrew: First, I challenge the premise that Priuses are not interesting. Maybe a gray Prius is uninteresting (about 85 percent of the cars in Los Angeles). But a red or blue Prius? Now that's exciting. As for the ad, I'll give it three lifts.
Super Bowl Babies Choir
Andrew: I thought this was pretty weird. If I was a marketing guy and wanted to promote "Football is Family," I'm not sure that's how I'd do it. Seems more like an ad for "Football is Haphazard Family Planning." One-and-a-half baby seals.
Sterling: It's too bad Peyton didn't toss four touchdowns during the game, because Seal's appearance made me think it was 2003. Also, this is way darker than anyone should take it, but I couldn't help thinking of all the unborn babies from fans of the 2011 Patriots, 2002 Raiders, and the other losing counterparts for the Super Bowl winners displayed in the commercial. One can only imagine what will happen to the population of Cleveland if the Browns reach a Super Bowl someday, win or lose.
T-Mobile: Drops the Balls
Sterling: I could care less about the Miss Universe pageant, but having Steve Garvey lampoon himself was gold. While my fellow upstate New Yorkers may curse T-Mobile for its terrible coverage in the area, they did well to get Garvey and Drake for their two ad spots during the game. I'm less satisfied with the "Hotline Bling" spoof, though, which definitely had more potential.
Andrew: Ordinarily, I would just correct that, but I like the idea of Steve Garvey hosting Miss Universe. And I like it when anybody can take themselves not too seriously. So I'm giving this ad three Dodgers baseball caps.
Sterling: Uhh, Siri told me it was Steve Harvey. No, I have never seen Family Feud, even when the Gronk clan was on it. And now I'll post/tweet/snap about my embarrassment on my tablet/laptop/phone and go back to discussing the virtues of Apple products and microbreweries with the rest of my millennial friends.
Prop Bets Recap
Andrew: You were clearly our winner here, hitting on 14 of your 23 bets, including 30 percent of your bankroll on Denver against the spread, Denver on the money line, and the game to go under 45.5 points. I actually hit on 13 of my 20 bets, but I would have lost a little money overall. I can't believe I put my faith in Mike Carey not to make a mistake. The odds seemed crazy for that, almost even money, but the takeaway from 2015 I left out was Mike Carey missing a ridiculous number of calls. He used to be an NFL referee, right?
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Sterling: I would take this time to boast, but it's probably too soon considering I'm two paragraphs removed from Steve Garvey. Anyways, I somehow didn't realize we could pick a side and not wager any of our virtual budget, so that led to me blowing money after hoping for things like a yellow Gatorade shower and a Demaryius Thomas end around. But as we highlighted last week, all the lines made betting on Carolina rather unprofitable. Going all-in on Denver made the most sense for the traditional props, and that's where my profit would've come from.
While we're on the subject of Mike Carey: Apparently, someone put together a Google spreadsheet tracking all of his calls from the 2015 season. No really, you can see it here. He has mostly been correct this year if this spreadsheet is right, though he had blunders in the past two games (the backwards pass in the AFC Championship Game and the Cotchery drop). It's probably a good thing I didn't see this until after the game, cause among the more exotic props, I felt better about that one than any besides the Stephen Curry one.
Andrew: Wow, maybe that's my Steve Garvey moment. I really had Carey's mistake rate way overestimated. I could have sworn there were at least double-digit mistakes in the playoffs alone. Seriously, though, five mistakes all year including the Super Bowl? Are we sure Mrs. Carey didn't put this together?
Sterling: Yeah, I'm pretty suspicious of this too. The spreadsheet says he didn't make a call on the Tom Brady near-TD run against Kansas City, but I could have sworn he suggested that Brady crossed the pylon. I even went back and rewatched the broadcast on Game Pass, but unfortunately, it doesn't include the entire replay time/conversation with Carey. And while I do miss football, I don't miss it enough yet to go recheck calls from Browns-Chargers and Texans-Jaguars.
|Scramble's Prop Bet Extravaganza Betting Totals|
|Game ATS (DEN +6)||DEN (£0)||DEN (£10,000)|
|Game Moneyline||DEN (£0)||DEN (£10,000)|
|Over/Under (45.5)||Under (£20,000)||Under (£10,000)|
|MVP||Peyton Manning (£3,000 at +320)||DeMarcus Ware (£1000 at +3000)|
|Josh Norman (£1,000 at +7500)|
|Thomas Davis (£1,000 at +27500)|
|3 Straight Scores||Yes (£10,000)||No (£4,000)|
|Missed PAT||No (£0)||No (£6,000)|
|Safety||No (£5,000)||No (£4,000)|
|CAR 1st Downs (20.5)||Under (£20,000)||Under (£2,500)|
|Kuechly Props||Eh (Stay Away) (£0)||15+ tackles (£1000)|
|Cam Rush+Pass Yds||Eh (Stay Away) (£0)||300+ (£2,500)|
|CAR Rushing Yds (125.5)||Over (£0)||Over (£2,500)|
|DEN Players w/Rush Att (3.5)||Under (£0)||Over (£2,500)|
|DEN Rushing TD||No (£0)||Yes (£5,000)|
|Manning INTs||Eh (Stay Away) (£0)||N/A (£0)|
|Daniels Rec||Under 2.5 (£10,000)||Under (£2,500)|
|MVP Thank You||Family (£10,000 at +1000)||Fans/City (£2,500 at +600)|
|Cam Celebration||Solo dance (£0)||Solo dance (£4,000 at +180)|
|Gatorade||Blue (£0)||Yellow (£2,500 at +450)|
|Higher TV Rating||Charlotte (£0)||Charlotte (£2,500)|
|Mike Carey||No (£15,000)||Yes (£1,000)|
|Altidore vs. Cam||Altidore (£5000)||Cam (£1,000)|
|Curry vs. Panthers||Curry (£0)||Curry (£8,000)|
|McIlroy vs. Sanders||McIlroy (£0)||Sanders (£7,500)|
|76ers vs. Broncos||76ers (£0)||76ers (£7,500)|
Playoff Fantasy Results
Sterling: There wasn't much drama left after the conference championships, though Denver's dominant defensive showing stopped me from running away with things. The Broncos needed to blow out the Panthers for Tom to have a shot; though C.J. Anderson did his part (17 points), a goose egg from Demaryius Thomas ended any chance at a miracle win for him. Lots of you were curious why Brandon McManus and the Broncos defense weren't drafted, and as it turns out, you all were exactly correct.
Andrew: Yes, maybe we got it wrong, not picking the best defense in football on a team that had home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. A great job by you and Tom constructing rosters from the toughest spots in the draft. In a playoffs defined by defenses, it's fitting that your margin of victory came from, by far, the best defense in our Denver-less field. Congratulations, Sterling. Very well played indeed, good sir. And I promised a prize to the winner here, so you will be getting a copy of the greatest nonfiction book ever written, Robert Caro's The Power Broker. You just have to promise to actually read it.
|QB||Carson Palmer||Russell Wilson||Tom Brady||Alex Smith||Cam Newton||Ben Roethlisberger|
|RB||Marshawn Lynch||Jeremy Hill||DeAngelo Williams||Jonathan Stewart||David Johnson||C.J. Anderson|
|RB||Ronnie Hillman||Charcandrick West||Steven Jackson||Spencer Ware||James White||Eddie Lacy|
|WR||Larry Fitzgerald||Jeremy Maclin||Julian Edelman||Antonio Brown||DeAndre Hopkins||Demaryius Thomas|
|WR||John Brown||A.J. Green||Michael Floyd||Doug Baldwin||Ted Ginn Jr.||Randall Cobb|
|WR||Emmanuel Sanders||Jermaine Kearse||Markus Wheaton||Tyler Lockett||DeSean Jackson||Martavis Bryant|
|TE||Heath Miller||Tyler Eifert||Jordan Reed||Travis Kelce||Greg Olsen||Rob Gronkowski|
|K||Chandler Catanzaro||Cairo Santos||Steven Hauschka||Stephen Gostkowski||Graham Gano||Mason Crosby|
Best of the Rest
Congrats to bedforp, who beat out the rest of the field with 156 points. Things were a little dicey, given that he barely got anything out of Peyton Manning (3 points), Owen Daniels (1 point), or Mike Tolbert (minus-1 point), but Corey Brown's 8-point day did just enough to give him the edge over Sid, who finished with 151 points. Final results can be found here.
Playoff Challenge Winner
Congratulations to our two co-winners this year, Nate Vanden Heuvel and David Laubenberg, who tied at the top of the FO Playoff Challenge with 286 points apiece. Both of them picked remarkably similar teams, with Cam Newton, David Johnson, C.J. Anderson, and Rob Gronkowski ultimately carrying them to victory.
Scramble for the Ball for 2015, over and out.